By Father Lewis S. Fiorelli, O.S.F.S.
“Forgive us our trespasses and we forgive those who trespass against us.” How those words from the Lord’s Prayer must sting each and every time they are said by an adult victim of child sexual abuse.
Forgiveness of the abuser and those complicit in any way in the abuse is not the first thing an adult victim thinks of when entering upon the path of healing. Anger, rage, even revenge are probably way ahead of forgiveness. It’s even hard to forgive God for seeming to have stood by on the sidelines when the abuse was happening. Forgiveness? Not now. Maybe never.
Even though St. Francis de Sales has not have written on the subject of child sexual abuse, I believe that there is much in his writings that can help one to deal with many of the often life-long spiritual and emotional challenges that are its sad legacy.
In the difficult issue of forgiveness, for instance, what he says about desires, feelings and grace can go a long way in helping an adult victim to make some tentative but promising steps toward forgiving “those who trespass against us.” These can be small steps adult victims of child sexual abuse can take at their own pace, in their own way, in the Lord’s timing.
“Desire” has always been an important and early element in making progress in the spiritual journey. Francis says that to desire something is already to be half way to obtaining it. Thus, to desire to love God is a major step toward actually loving God. Similarly, to want to be able to forgive those who have abused or have been complicit in abuse is to be already on the path toward forgiving them. Indeed, it’s a long path and an uneven journey. Still, to desire forgiveness gets us half way there. We may not be able yet (or for a very long time or even ever in this life) to actually forgive to the extent that Jesus envisions it in the Lord’s Prayer, but to want to be there is already to be half way there! It is a first step but an essential one. God sees our desire and that is enough for now.
“Feelings” can be problematic in the spiritual life. I like to remind people that feelings are actually morally neutral. Unless we choose to act on them, one way or the other, they are just there, annoying perhaps but nothing more. We don’t choose to have negative feelings. They are just there. Actually, in a sense feelings remember. The feelings victims had while be abused “remember” for years, for decades, often for a lifetime! But those feelings have no substance in the moral order. Adult victims often feel because they cannot rid themselves (or do not yet want to be rid) of such feelings as anger or rage or shame or revenge that they are somehow what they feel. They are not. You are not. Such feelings, though annoying and stubborn, do not negate the reality of the desire to want to be able to forgive. To learn how to separate feelings from desires, and feelings from actions is a very useful tool in healing.
“Grace” is a much-understood word. Bottom line, grace is simply God’s work in us. His work saves and heals. But it does so much more. Why did Jesus often speak of little things such as seeds becoming huge bushes or trees? Why did he make use of five loaves and two fish to feed five thousand hungry people? They were parables of grace. They teach us that Jesus (God) can take whatever little we are able to give or manage, and multiply that a hundred or even a thousand fold. In short, we don’t have to do all the work of forgiveness ourselves. Even something as little as our wanting to be able to forgive, when grace touches that desire, multiplies it far beyond our little efforts, multiplying its effects a thousand fold.
When some of this sinks in and begins to take hold of the heart and head of an adult victim of child sexual abuse, wonderful things begin to happen. Who knows, maybe in time, perhaps after a very long time, one may be able to echo the words of Jesus from the Cross: “Father, forgive them!” Until then, to want to forgive is already to be half way there. And with grace, it may in time find itself all the way there.
So, in a real sense, forgiveness, even here, though difficult, is possible.
Rev. Lewis S. Fiorelli, O.S.F.S., serves in the diocese of Arlington, Virginia. He taught dogmatic theology and Salesian spirituality in the Washington DC area before being elected as 10th Superior General of the Oblates. He has served as chaplain to several Salesian lay groups and is the Auxiliary Religious Assistant to the monasteries of the Order of the Visitation in the United States. In 2007, Fr. Fiorelli was appointed to General Formation Coordinator for the Oblate Congregation. He has led retreats for survivors of clergy abuse and presented many workshops to priests, nuns and others seeking to offer spiritual guidance and support to survivors of abuse by clergy and others in authority. Along with other books on spiritual guidance and St. Francis de sales, Fr. Fiorelli has written, with co-author T. Pitt Green, a workbook entitled Veronica’s Veil: Spiritual Companionship for Adult Survivors of Child Abuse – Integrating Faith with Recovery, A Christ-Centered Support for Healing from Child Abuse. He is a guest contributor to The Healing Voices Magazine.